Greeley Center for Independence board hears emotional testimony calling for Hope Warm Water Pool to remain open

February 20, 2019 

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Terry Frei 

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On the stairs, Greeley Center for Independence board past president Chris Woodruff and board chair Shelly Rios face the crowd and explain the plans for the public input session about the Hope Warm Water Pool. (Terry Frei )

The Greeley Center for Independence board issued an invitation to the public to offer feedback Wednesday night on the planned closing of the facility’s Hope Warm Water Pool.

The public responded.

About 105 minutes of testimony Wednesday night at the GCI headquarters in south Greeley— including from the son and daughter of the center’s founder Hope Cassidy, who both vehemently opposed the closing of the therapy pool — was followed by a brief discussion among the board behind closed doors.

At that point, board chairwoman Shelly Rios and past president Chris Woodruff said a vote wasn’t taken about the future of the pool. Yet both indicated the board would ponder the feedback and didn’t rule out a change of heart.

“We basically talked about what our next step needs to be,” Rios said. “And that is to reconvene as a board, review all the notes that were taken tonight and really look at it, at is there any possibility for maintenance and to sustain the pool longterm.”

So there is hope for proponents of the pool?

“I would say there is hope for proponents of the pool if we can make it work,” she said.

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 Above the Hope Warm Water Pool entrance.

The board heard repeated suggestions from speakers that various fundraising mechanisms — everything from grants and corporate support to GoFundMe campaigns — were viable means of raising funds to keep the pool open.

Many speakers said another workout gym — the planned replacement for the pool — wasn’t needed in Greeley, although the gym is planned to be more geared to disabled patrons than conventional gyms. Speakers emphasized the therapy pool’s role in helping the injured, handicapped and pain-ridden, and the paucity of alternatives in the area.

Several also criticized what was characterized as a lack of significant advance discussion and disclosure about the possible closure before it was announced earlier this month.

At the time, GCI executive director Sarita Reddy said the pool lost $54,000 last year and renovations needed to keep the pool operational would cost more than $100,000.

“We didn’t do this as a knee-jerk reaction,” Rios said. “We have spent months talking about this, looking at options, looking at different funding sources. But we will gladly take what everybody said, re-look at it and rethink it.”

Said Woodruff: “We’re going to think about all the things that people have suggested. We’ll talk about it and see if we as a board see a way through this. If there are partnerships that are available. If there’s money really out there. There are a lot of people who believe that there is money available. We’ll find out.”

Neither Rios nor Woodruff put it this way, but this might come down to a “put up or shut up” challenge for those arguing the money could be raised.

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 Cara Machina, left, speaks to the GCI board while her brother, Rob Cassidy, listens. They are the daughter and son of GCI founder Hope Cassidy. The Hope Warm Water Pool is named after her.

Hope Cassidy’s son, Rob Cassidy, and daughter, Cara Machina, were among the final speakers.

Cassidy works for PepsiCo, lives in the Twin Cities and came to Greeley for the session with the board.

Machina, a software engineer, lives in Greeley.

“My mom lives two doors down from me,” she said.

In the meeting room, Machina chided the board for using Hope Cassidy’s name in the letter that went out, announcing the closing.

“It’s not OK to put my mom’s name on something that says this is what she would think, let’s continue with her legacy,” Machina said. “This is exactly the opposite of what my mom would do.”

“That’s true,” said Rob Cassidy. “She would never do this, at all.”

After leaving the meeting room, Cassidy said, “I feel like the pool was a big part of the mission. (Hope Cassidy) didn’t narrowly define disability. She wanted to define disability as widely as possible. For her to see so much of the community to be able to utilize a facility like this was gratifying. She traveled all over the country and collected the best practices of therapy pools nationwide to bring to this pool. So we think that she would not be supportive of this decision.”

Several speakers did refer to a silver lining — the calling of attention to GCI, which has offerings that include the Stephens Farm residential program for adult survivors of brain injury. Along those lines, Cassidy and Machina emphasized that while they have quibbles with the GCI operation following their mother’s departure from its management, they still support it.

“We want to make sure that the entirety of GCI is upheld,” Cassidy said. “They do good work here and this is a difficult situation for them. I don’t feel like they’re mal-intended. It’s just financially driven. I don’t think they understand how much the community would come alongside the center and help.”

The GCI board said 87 members of the public signed in before the presentations Wednesday night with their contact information, and by the end of the session, 26 spoke. The initial crowd appeared to be about 150. Given the nature of the discussion, this wasn’t surprising, but no speaker supported the board’s decision to close the pool.

Before the testimony began, the crowd filled most of the first-floor hallway before and beyond the reception desk as the 5:30 p.m. meeting time approached.

Rios and Woodruff stood part of the way up the stairway to the second floor and briefed the crowd below.

They explained that speakers would be called to the upstairs meeting room in groups of three. Rios said the board was there to hear everyone out and asked for a constructive dialogue, perhaps involving possible solutions rather than acrimony.

Testimony began at 5:45 p.m., with the 10 board members seated in a horseshoe formation, facing the speakers. Each speaker was allotted three minutes.

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 Five of the 10 board members, positioned to listen to the speakers in the second-floor meeting room at the Greeley Center for Independence. From left, Stephanie Torrez, Chris Woodruff, Shelly Rios, Sarita Reddy and Nick Berryman. 

Eventually, Rob Cassidy and Cara Machina spoke to the board together. Their mother founded the GCI in 1977 and the warm water pool opened in 1997.

“I think we’re here to speak on behalf of Hope,” Cassidy told the board. “I would tell you the one thing she would say, is she would applaud the courage of the board. And applaud the willingness of the board to sit and listen with the community and have this outreach and give a chance for people who use the pool to tell you how important it is in their life and how important it is to the mission and how it’s essential to the center. Then she would have prayed.

“She would have prayed to make this decision really easy. To just open up the path and light it in a way so it’s a no-brainer for everybody in this room. It is a lot of pressure. It’s very symbolic for us. That’s why we’re here.”

Cassidy said he hoped the board had read a letter he sent to the members, outlining his mother’s legacy with GCI. He said he had ideas about how to possibly make it feasible to keep the pool open and would communicate them in additional dialogue with the board.

But Cassidy did say, “I work in e-commerce. I solicit their customers. I’m in a multinational, $2 billion business unit right now. There’s thousands of patrons that have walked through this pool since (its founding) in 1997. If those names aren’t being collected and solicited and marketed to, I think that’s a huge opportunity. I don’t know if that’s happening.

“I feel that any time my mom got into these situations, she would always reach out to the community and raise money in the community, at a dinner for an event at the pool where the radio station was called to come in and participate. For us in the community who have been here a long time, we know that Greeley takes care of institutions like this.

“There are always people willing to sponsor. Even having kind of a program where people can  make a contribution for a few hundred dollars and get access to the pool and know that sponsors a District 6 learn to swim program, I think patrons would emerge.”

His sister, Machina, was angrier.

“I just got a letter that my mom wrote to staff when she left here in September of 2008, which I think was a miracle because in the letter it says specifically, ‘I will write and submit an operations grant to El Pomar Foundation for the first year of our extended services, If the board can find it useful, I would be willing to write one more mystery dinner. I have an outline of one involving a rodeo clown. Finally, I think you all agree that I need at least a month to clear my office.'”

Machina continued, “El Pomar does operations grants. There are grants. There’s a $40,000 grant for pool maintenance someone looked up online that I have the information for. There’s also pool efficiency grants. There are grants out there.”

After the testimony, the board talked among themselves for about 15 minutes, but never officially convened a meeting.

 

February 22, 2019 Column 

Hope Cassidy’s legacy is both heartening and impressive. It involves more, so much more, than the warm water therapy pool named after her in the Greeley Center for Independence headquarters building in south Greeley.

After she founded the GCI in 1977, the organization became both an advocate and an aid for those with temporary and permanent disabilities. Before she retired in 2008, GCI had added the Camelot II Apartments, 18 accessible units adjacent to the University of Northern Colorado (1993); the Hope Therapy Center for physical and occupational therapy, with the offices above it (1997); and the Stephens Farm Campus, with 18 apartments for those with Acquired Brain Injuries (2006).

I admit it: Before the pool controversy became a firestorm, I knew virtually nothing about the GCI and Cassidy’s legacy. I’d heard of the GCI, but that’s about it. Wasn’t sure what it was. Wasn’t sure what it did.

I’m willing to bet I had a lot of company in that regard.

And then the all-volunteer GCI board decided to close the pool, citing an ongoing annual deficit and daunting future maintenance costs, plus an alternative plan to convert the pool area to a gym and smaller pool designed to be used by those with handicaps and disabilities.

I sat in the meeting room Wednesday night on the second floor of the main building, above the pool, composed a story on the fly as testimony continued and periodically posted versions.

I heard 26 speakers — including Rob Cassidy and Cara Machina, Hope Cassidy’s son and daughter — passionately argue that the pool should remain open.

As I related in the final version of the story, Hope’s children, especially Machina, were adamant that if Hope still was involved and part of the dialogue, she would be opposed to the closure.

Machina, conscious of the 3-minute time limit for speakers, took a deep breath and unloaded on the board.

She repeated a common refrain on the evening when she said, “This pool can be marketed. … There are ways to bring in a lot of money.” She argued that the pool actually is making a profit that isn’t being “plowed back into the pool.” And she again agreed with many other speakers, when she said, “Nobody knew it was having trouble. We need to let them know it’s having trouble.”

Well, that part seems to have been accomplished.

Machina and her brother also brought up the recent GCI sale of the Camelot II Apartments.

“I didn’t even know it had been sold,” Machina said. “I would like to know what happened with the money from the funds there.”

 

 

GCI executive director Sarita Reddy Thursday said by email: “We sold it at the end of 2018 because it had become an inappropriate setting for vulnerable people. The major grant funder for the project came to visit and said as much. We sold it to a company that is invested in keeping it as affordable housing but has the funds to renovate it completely. … There was no major profit. It simply served to reduce the debt we have on our properties.”

Good can come out of this, even if the board won’t back down on the proposed closure. This has raised the GCI’s profile and, yes, it’s possible this could shake supporters — in one form or another — of the warm water pool out of the trees.

Speaker after speaker said that support is out there.

OK, let’s see it. And soon enough to convince the board it’s the right thing to do.

Why wouldn’t the board back down now, given the response?

Keep in mind that even 26 speakers and a jaw-dropping overall turnout isn’t necessarily an indication of pervasive public opinion. Plus a volunteer board for a non-profit that does considerable public good would be irresponsible to not be passionate about pragmatism and the bottom line, rather than simply placing a dampened finger aloft to check which way the winds of passion are blowing. The board members are entrusted to make whatever decisions needed to keep GCI able to serve its mission and people. The pool is part of that mission, but as an adjunct service, not necessarily just for those with physical disabilities and brain injuries.

It all sounded so simple, and it all came at the board.

Start a GoFundMe campaign and ask for the support of those who have used the pool for rehabilitation and pain relief.

Hit up the Monforts (again).

Throw a gala.

Apply for grants.

Win Powerball. (Just kidding…)

Those who get considerable good out of using the pool were both passionate and convincing. Some had disabilities. Others simply have had repeated surgeries and/or have bodies rebelling as pages are torn off the calendar.

Regardless, it was clear that for many, succumbing to the recruiting pitch from UCHealth Medical Fitness for its 96-degree pool in Windsor isn’t a realistic option. That pitch came via Facebook on the comments section beneath Sara Knuth’s Feb. 7 Tribune news story, and it read, in part: “We just wanted to let you know that the Hope pool is not the only warm water therapy pool in Weld county. We have an amazing salt-water therapy pool located in Windsor, just a quick 10 minutes from Greeley.”

Ten minutes? That must be from extreme West Greeley. My pal, iPhone Maps, says the Windsor facility is 24 minutes from downtown Greeley. Other speakers pointed out that the UCHealth facility doesn’t accept the Silver Sneakers program that many insurance plans cover.

The solution seems obvious. Some speakers even alluded to a process along these lines. Board president Shelly Rios hinted of it after the Wednesday night session. I hinted at it earlier, too.

See if the support, as speaker after speaker promised there was, really is out there.

Invite Cara Machina to be part of the process, both for the pool and moving forward, as the trustee of her mother’s legacy. Now, she’s an outside critic. Make her an insider. Utilize her passion, so on display Wednesday night. I’d hope she’d be willing to do it.

Put together a collaborative fundraising effort. It shouldn’t be up to the 10 volunteer board members alone, and the fact is, the board tossed around many of the possibilities before deciding to pull the plug on the pool.

Challenge those who said they’d contribute or get involved in fundraising.

Set a goal and a reasonable time limit.

If  the pool effectively can be endowed with a variety of money-raising means, rather than have it mainly rely on the whims of year-to-year grant funding, it stays open.

If not … bring on the gym. 

 

Follow news story, February 22

With the Greeley Center for Independence — or at least its board — in the eye of the storm over the announced closing of the Hope Warm Water Pool, it seems to have been overlooked at times that the pool is only part of the GCI’s operation.

Specifically, the families of two residents of GCI’s Stephens Farm facility for those with acquired brain injuries spoke up.

Kevin Owen of Frederick is the son of Stephens Farm resident Cheryl Knight.

“I think it’s kind of unfair that (GCI is) getting such negative representation of it,” Owen said Wednesday. “I don’t think a lot of people actually realize what the Greeley Center for Independence actually does. And how much they contribute to the community as far as who and how they’re able to help people with brain injuries. I think maybe all they think about is the pool itself.”

Knight suffered her brain injury in Thornton in about 2001, Owen said.

“She had a heart fibrillation,” Owen said. “Basically, her brain went without oxygen for approximately 15 minutes. She was in a coma for a month and when she came out of it, she couldn’t really speak, she couldn’t really walk, she couldn’t do a lot for herself. Through physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy, all services provided through the Greeley Center for Independence, my mom was able to regain some of that back. She’s able to talk, feed herself, write and walk with a walker.

“The care she has been provided there has far exceeded any other place she has been, and she’s been to multiple facilities, in south Denver and Colorado Springs.”

 

Loveland resident Sharon Werning’s son, Douglas, is 51 and also lives at Stephens Farm. He was an original resident from the day it opened in 2006.

“He had epileptic seizures that were not controlled by any medication,” Sharon said. “His neurologist felt he was a good candidate for brain surgery.”

Sharon and her husband, Gary, were living in Windsor at the time.

The problem was, Sharon said, that the Denver-area surgeon “damaged his short term memory bank. He had a left temporal lobectomy done, and she damaged that portion of his brain while she was working on the focal point of the seizure activity. So the seizures were under control but he was left with a short-term, memory deficit.”

His parents placed Douglas in several facilities, in Colorado and Texas, before landing in Stephens Farm. “It’s been a godsend,” Sharon said. “He’s thriving. They do a wonderful, wonderful job there. I don’t think people really realize, until you have a need, what they are in the community, a wonderful asset to the brain injury community. Doug could be over here with us, but we don’t have the structure of programs that a brain-injury person needs.”

She said Doug has a part-time volunteer job, riding the bus to a nursing home and working with senior citizens, often helping them with shopping.

“It breaks your heart when you have to walk away and leave your son in a program like that,” Sharon said, “but when it’s your only choice, that’s what you do.”


   

Reaction to reversal, March 1

 Rob Cassidy and Cara Machina, the son and daughter of Greeley Center for Independence founder Hope Cassidy, Thursday praised the GCI board’s decision to step away from its plan to close the Hope Warm Water Pool in the spring.

“It was a happy day,” said Machina, a Greeley software engineer. “It definitely was nice to see the community support, and I hope we can ride all that strength and make it work. It was brave and bold of the board to reverse the decision.”

Cassidy said he spoke with GCI board president Shelly Rios Wednesday, after a board meeting that morning. He got the news that the board had decided to keep the pool open, at least for the foreseeable future, while exploring ways to make the facility financially sustainable.

“I was really grateful,” Cassidy said from his home in Minnesota. “I think it’s great for the community. The hard work now begins. I applaud the board. To do what they did, to get the feedback they received and use that to make the best decision they thought they could, I think they did a great job.”

The reversal followed the GCI board listening to about 100 minutes of often emotional testimony from those arguing the warm water pool should remain open rather then be replaced with a smaller pool and a fitness center specifically designed to be used by those with disabilities.

Rob Cassidy and Machina were among the 26 speakers, and they insisted that their infirm mother would not go along with a pool closure and that she considered the pool an important element in the GCI mission. The GCI opened in 1977, the pool in 1997. Hope Cassidy retired in 2008.

The discussion with Rios didn’t go into depth about the next steps, Rob Cassidy said, whether fundraising or promoting the pool to bring in more revenue.

“I know that they’ll be meeting in March to lay out more of the strategy and the plan,” Cassidy said. “I don’t know anything in that regard.

“To me, what I quietly hope for is that the pool is around for generations. I’m not looking at this as a fix-it-for-one-year thing. I’m looking at this like I’m hoping for my great-, great-grandchildren (to) use the pool one day. So whatever they need from us, we’re going to be there for them, whether that’s a capital campaign or just encouraging people to go swim more …” — at that point, he laughed — “or anything else I’ve quietly been pitching.”

At the evening of testimony about the pool, suggestions about fundraising included pitching the business community, seeking grants, or even starting a GoFundMe campaign.

“I don’t know what they’re going to need from us, but we’ll definitely do whatever we can to help them get there,” Machina said. “I think the board has to figure out how they want to approach it and then Rob and I will be more than happy to jump in there.”


The GCI’s mission, including serving those with brain injuries and disabilities, came under the spotlight during the public imbroglio over the warm-water pool, used by many with aches, pains and surgical scars. Plus, the pool itself drew considerable attention, including from those who hadn’t known it existed and was available for public use.

“There’s tremendous benefit there that tends to be kind of written off, as this place that’s just a warm pool,” Cassidy said. “But it offers up opportunities for healing that are truly unique, given the history of the pool and all that has gone into it, just years and years of staff and commitment. All of the people that have come through there and gotten benefit from it, I think that’s the part of it that probably was most important to me. It was a project that my mom was incredibly proud of.”

Cassidy and Machina had voiced some misgivings about the current state of the GCI, but Cassidy downplayed that Thursday night, saying he and his sister weren’t estranged from the operation their mother founded.

“I don’t feel that way at all,” he said. “I want to be supportive of them. I know they’re doing incredible work on a lot of different dimensions of GCI, and it’s much bigger than the pool.”

Machina, who lives near her mother, didn’t burden her with the details of the controversy.

“I just want her to get healthier and stronger,” Machina said. “I didn’t want to stress her out with that. But I did tell her, ‘Rob did a really great job representing you and he’s going to do his best to make sure things keep going.'”